Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Common Sense

Thomas Paine

The opening words to Common Sense certainly struck a chord with me, as they surely would with many a determined radical pamphleteer of the internet age. "Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favour", Thomas Paine conceded, but then "time makes more converts than reason, as a long and violent abuse of power is generally the means of calling the right in question". In short, Paine had the prophet's certainty that the validity of his claims would be demonstrated by the course of events.

And indeed, in 1776, his proposals were literally revolutionary. Yet hundreds of thousands would accept the great bulk of them as common sense within the space of months, as Americans began their struggle to free themselves from British colonialism, and to establish a republic. Norfolk-born Paine had only been in the country two years, but he was working to popularise ideas already being debated by America's future leaders. When he claimed that "The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind", he was representing the best in the pioneering spirit of the new nation, and the words had a very different meaning to what they would suggest in today's context.

Paine began by trying to describe how government of any form might first have come to be, and in this, he was apparently inspired by his meetings with the native Iroquois people (an interesting parallel with the later work of Friedrich Engels). He sketched out a classically libertarian position on the minimal necessity of government, which can be compared to that of later writers such as Thoreau. Our needs and wants draw us into society with others, and "society in every state is a blessing", but even the best government is only "a necessary evil", which should only exist to provide security for all by enforcing "virtue", and at the least expense.

It should be obvious to all but the most deluded royalists that all monarchical systems fail this test, being hugely draining on the public purse, and failing to provide security to all. Commenting on the mixed system that had been adopted in the country of his birth after the English Civil War, Paine observed that "the fate of Charles I hath only made kings more subtle, not more just." The king still wielded immense power over both the houses of parliament, and "The state of a king shuts him from the world, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly".

Paine then shifted his attention to the absurdity of monarchy as a system of government. After all, "...how a race of man came into the world so exalted above the rest and distinguished like some new species is worth enquiring into, and whether they are the means of happiness or of misery to mankind." Invoking scripture, he declared monarchy "the most prosperous invention the devil ever set on foot for idolatry", and illustrates his beliefs with biblical examples. Then putting religion to one side, Paine asserted that with "all men originally equals, no-one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others forever". The absurdity wouldn't matter though, if monarchy ensured "a race of good and wise men", but "as it opens the door to the foolish, the wicked and improper, it hath in the nature of oppression." After all, the minds of future monarchs "are early poisoned by importance, and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large." By the time they ascend to the throne, they are "frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions."

One look at the House of Windsor shows that this remains true of the British monarchy, and all The King's Speeches in the world can't change the fact. But Paine wasn't concerned with monarchy as an abstraction, or as some kind of academic exercise. He wanted to convince his new countrymen that it was necessary to rise up against a specific monarchy - that of Britain - and its armed forces. So in later chapters, blood-curdling tales of British massacres seeped into the pages, alongside strategic calculations and rhetorical claims that "the sun never shined on a cause of greater worth" than American independence. In these passages, Paine made his case that America had outgrown its abusive "parent", and would now be able to prosper without its supposed familial ties. "We have boasted the protection of Great Britain", he charged, "without considering that her motive was interest, not attachment". In 1776, "not a single advantage is derived" from being a colony of Britain, and furthermore, it was illogical for one country to make laws for application in another.

Not content to curse the darkness, Paine made sure to light a candle - proposing a new system with a president instead of a monarch, one year terms of office for assembly members (after which they would return to the community), and "wholly domestic" policies (i.e. no waging of war).

From a Marxist perspective, there are of course some important limitations to Common Sense. Paine cloaked his appeal in "virtue" and morality, precisely he reserved the motivation of social class for the aristocracy. What's more, "commerce" was presented as being class neutral, and beneficial to all. But capitalism as we know it was in its infancy, and the task of describing and analysing its horrors would fall to the poets and economists of future generations. Common Sense is a remarkable example of pamphleteering, which succeeded because it described the then coming political upheavals in ways that many enquiring minds would come to understand. The radical writers of today have much to learn from the clarity of speech and persistent logic of Thomas Paine.

Friday, May 06, 2011

The Murder of Bin Laden in Political Context

High-ranking US officials watch the drama unfold
The US murder of Al Qaeda figurehead Osama bin Laden is undoubtedly a momentous event. But bin Laden's compound had reportedly been under surveillance for some time, so it makes sense to consider what factors might have compelled Obama to finally make the decisive move.
It's not insignificant that this is taking place just four months before the tenth anniversary of September 11th, 2001. If the world's most wanted man had still been at large a decade after he supposedly ordered the death of thousands, many Americans and others would have been asking why. This might have raised further serious doubts about US military intelligence. However, bin Laden's killing removes that possibility, and the US ruling class is now free to promote rampant patriotism and militarism on that date.

Indeed, as the US elite deepen their assault on working class living standards at home and abroad, the reported execution provides an ideal opportunity to project the media focus onto an outside common enemy. Just like Emmanuel Goldstein in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four, bin Laden popped up from time to time with a new video or tape, which the corporate media gleefully screened on a loop. The Obama administration must hope that the materially divided States will briefly be united in hatred of the old bogeyman one more time.

After all, there is gathering evidence that the broad masses are shifting way to the left of the ruling political consensus, in the US as much as anywhere else. Though Obama postures as a 'left' opponent of the Republicans, and for now 'only' proposes a $3 trillion cut in government spending over the next decade, polls are showing that a large majority support tax rises for the rich over living standards cuts for the poor. With Wisconsin leading the way in February, opposition is emerging in state after state to the American austerity agenda demanded by the financial institutions, and dutifully enacted by politicians after the parliamentary puppet show.

The are also historically remarkable levels of domestic opposition to the US-led war on the Gaddafi regime. Despite the cradle to grave brainwashing that comes from living in the world's leading imperialist nation, many Americans no longer seem to believe that America's mission to 'civilise' the world should continue, at the cost of blood and treasure. Ten years of body bags coming home has no doubt made a big impact, as must people's own financial concerns when they see their tax dollars going up in smoke once more. Though this anger has yet to find political expression, government strategists surely fear anti-imperial sentiment linking up with the inevitable class backlash. From now on, Obama will want to use bin Laden's reported demise to 'reassure' the population that their sacrifice will always be worth it in the end.

Furthermore, the show of strength is also aimed at US imperialism's opponents amongst the Arab and Middle Eastern working class, whose forces are continuing to realise their own power. From Tunisia to Egypt and Yemen to Bahrain, the region's toiling masses are rising up to confront their dictators, and behind them the American empire. While bullets and bombs have long been the only visible signs of desperate Middle Eastern resistance, strikes, mass protests and direct action are now coming to the fore. As I commented just last week, the US is scrambling to shore up the wealth of Big Oil and the big banks, applying different strategies in each nation. The idea of even the enormously wealthy bin Laden full of bullet holes is a potent one.

Finally, now bin Laden is sleeping with the fishes, there is no possibility of him being tried for his role in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The events leading up to the atrocity are still shrouded in mystery, and the US ruling class has many questions to answer. Not least amongst these are its ties to bin Laden and Al Qaeda, a network which developed out of fighters trained by the CIA to combat the Soviet Union during the Cold War. As we have seen over the past decade, the US elite have reaped the rewards of its supposed incompetence on that fateful day, and had the unarmed bin Laden been captured alive, he might well have undermined the official story.

Right now, wall to wall media coverage almost forces us to witness the repugnant spectacle of George W Bush and Tony Blair - two of the biggest 9/11 beneficiaries - crawling from their gilded retirement sewers to bathe themselves in unearned glory over the death of their supposed nemesis. But material facts are ultimately more powerful than any propaganda, and the material fact is that working people around the world have now reached the point of no return, and are drawing a line in the sand. Ruling class victory tales will not distract them for long.

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